Why elephants have cracks in their skin

Researchers studied a baby elephant to learn more about their protective skin.

Story highlights

  • Elephants have adapted to form cracks in their skin to regulate temperature and protect from parasites
  • The cracks also allow the elephants to retain more water in their skin

(CNN)Elephants' wrinkles aren't just about age. In fact, the observation that baby elephants don't have wrinkles in their skin led researchers to wonder why and how these form.

What they discovered is that the skin "cracks" to improve their quality of life, according to a study published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.
Researchers at the University of Geneva and the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics studied the skin surface of African bush elephants and realized that those wrinkles form an intricate network of tiny crevices.
    This lattice pattern fractures and bends as the elephants grow, creating millions of channels across their skin. The result looks rather like the cracks that form in dried mud, in damaged asphalt, across the polar landscape of the Earth and Mars or even within natural formations like Northern Ireland's Giant's Causeway or eastern California's Devils Postpile, the researchers said.
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    If that were true, it would imply that the cracks form because of skin shrinkage. The researchers used samples of elephant skin and ran simulations to figure out how the cracks formed, and they realized that new layers at the base layer of their skin allowed for bending at the surface. That bending created "microvalleys" on the top layer.
    But how would micrometer cracks in their skin help elephants?
    A closer look at the patterns in elephant skin.
    "It is very counterintuitive that cracking the skin could be beneficial," study author Michel Milinkovitch, professor at the University of Geneva's department of genetics and evolution, wrote in an email.